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Understanding Pet Food Labels

Cutting through the clutter of pet food labels is no easy feat. As a seasoned canine nutritionist, I've spent countless hours dissecting these labels and here's the harsh truth: you practically need a degree to make sense of them. Manufacturers don't simplify this process—deliberately. Their goal? To convince you that their product is a nutritional goldmine for your dog when, in reality, you might as well be feeding your pet cardboard. (Okay, that's an exaggeration, but you get the point.)


While I staunchly advocate for a fresh-food diet, I recognise that many of you will opt for commercial dry food. That's why I'm here—to help you see through the smoke and mirrors of crafty marketing tactics.  Understanding the ingredients and processing of your pet's food is crucial.


The average pet owner is at a severe disadvantage when it comes to deciphering ingredient lists and nutritional profiles on commercial pet food. For example, manufacturers may boast about the benefits of specific ingredients yet include them in quantities so minuscule they barely make a difference. And let's not forget the information they conveniently omit—like carbohydrate content.


The deception is deep-rooted. Decades of strategic marketing have conditioned us to believe that kibble is the pinnacle of dog health. I'm here to shatter those illusions and arm you with the knowledge to decode pet food labels effectively.



Let's dive into the ingredients list. Here are the key things you need to look out for:


Understanding Ingredient Order on Dog Food Labels

When it comes to dog food labels, the order of ingredients follows the same rule as human food labels: the ingredient with the highest amount appears first, and the one with the least amount is listed last. However, there's a twist—ingredients are listed by weight, not volume. This distinction is crucial because fresh meat, which contains significant moisture, weighs more than dry ingredients like meat meal, grains, or legumes.


Here's where it gets tricky. Ingredients are listed based on their pre-processed weight. If you see beef listed as the first ingredient, you might think it’s the main component of the kibble. However, it's important to consider that beef contains 70-80% moisture. Unlike dry ingredients like corn, which are added in their lighter, dehydrated forms, the dynamics shift significantly.


In essence, while beef might top the list due to its high water content, once dehydrated, its actual dry matter is significantly less than that of corn. Consequently, corn could be the predominant ingredient in the final product despite appearing second on the label.


Understanding this labelling quirk can help you make more informed choices about what you're really feeding your furry friend. It's recommended that you choose a product with the first five ingredients coming from a whole-food animal product, such as beef, chicken, beef liver, or beef heart.


Whole Foods vs. By-Products in Pet Food

When scanning the ingredient list on your pet's food, you'll encounter various types of meats and grains. These ingredients can be classified into two main categories: whole foods and by-products.


Whole Foods

Whole foods include unprocessed ingredients like chicken, beef, fish, wholegrain oats, pumpkin, broccoli, and cranberries. These ingredients maintain some of their natural nutritional value, offering some nourishment for your pet. However, the high-heat processing of kibble raises questions about the overall quality (a topic we'll explore in another blog post).


Meals and By-Products

On the other hand, terms like "meal" or "by-product" indicate a different story. For instance, "chicken meal" or "corn meal" refers to ingredients that have been highly processed. Specifically, animal meals involve rendering—a process that converts waste animal tissue into stable, usable materials, which are converted to a dry powder. These meals often come from ‘4D meats’, which are sourced from animals that were dead, dying, diseased, or down at the time of processing. Such meats are not fit for human consumption and should be avoided.


Similarly, meat by-products include various animal parts such as heads, feet, and intestines, excluding only feathers. These components lack the nutritional quality of whole foods and may not be ideal for your pet's diet.


For optimal pet health, choose recipes that prioritise fresh, whole foods over ‘meals’ and ‘by-products’. Ingredients like chicken, beef, fish, specific animal organs, and a variety of fruits and vegetables will provide the best nutritional benefits.


Beware of Vague Ingredients

When it comes to your pet's food, specificity matters. Ingredients listed without clear sources are a major red flag. Take "cereal," for example—an ambiguous term that could mean almost anything containing a grain. This lack of detail often signals poor quality, especially if such vague descriptors appear among the first five ingredients.


Another term to watch out for is "meat." Without specifying the animal, you can't be sure what you're feeding your pet. This is particularly crucial if your dog has sensitivities to certain proteins. Always opt for transparency in ingredient lists to ensure you're providing the best for your furry friend.


Supplemented Vitamins and Minerals in Dog Food

The quality of dog food can often be gauged by the amount of added vitamins and minerals. Ideally, dogs would get all their micronutrients from whole, fresh foods. However, most commercial dog food undergoes extensive processing. This includes multiple high-temperature treatments to eliminate pathogens and dehydrate the food. Furthermore, many ingredients arrived at the manufacturer already heat-treated, which further depleted their nutritional content.


Heat is particularly harsh on vitamins, destroying many during processing. As a result, manufacturers must reintroduce these nutrients to the nearly finished product in order to call the product ‘complete’. Unfortunately, many dog foods lack enough high-quality ingredients to meet basic mineral requirements.


Another concern is the absorbability of synthetic nutrients. Although the packaging may list various vitamins and minerals, the body may not effectively absorb them. Whole foods offer a more digestible source of these essential nutrients compared to synthetic additions.


It is essential to select products with minimal added micronutrients. Avoid foods packed with these additives, and be wary of items where 'vitamins and minerals’ are listed vaguely among ingredients.

 

Grains in Dog Food: What You Need to Know

Grains are often added to commercial dog food as fillers and to provide the necessary fiber for the extrusion process. However, not all grains are created equal. While some grains can be beneficial in moderation, many of the grains used are of subpar quality, often being by-products of human food manufacturing. These low-grade grains may be infested with toxic moulds and offer minimal nutritional value. In some cases, they can even harm your pet, as dogs struggle to digest them properly. Aim for products containing whole grains like wholegrain oats or quinoa.





Grains to Avoid:


Corn: This cheap filler is a starchy energy source with no nutritional value. Linked to allergies, joint swelling, and bloat, corn in dog food is sometimes contaminated with mycotoxins and aflatoxins. It's also hard to digest and often sourced from genetically modified crops.



Wheat: Containing gluten, wheat can cause serious gut issues in some breeds. Non-organic wheat is frequently contaminated with glyphosate (Roundup), which negatively impacts a dog's gut health and, subsequently, their immune system.


Soy: Almost always genetically modified, soy in pet food contains glyphosate, posing a risk to your dog's health.



White Rice: With a high glycaemic index, white rice digests rapidly, causing insulin spikes and inflammation. It may also contain high levels of arsenic, a known carcinogen.



Refined Ingredients: Anything labelled as ‘meal,’ ‘flour,’ or ‘pulp’ is of low nutritional value and should be avoided altogether.


Choose wisely and prioritise your pet's health by avoiding these harmful grains.

 

Carbohydrates in Pet Food

When examining pet food labels, you'll find a section called 'nutritional analysis.' This details the percentage of protein, fat, fiber, ash, moisture, and sometimes other nutrients in the food. But one macronutrient is usually missing: carbohydrates.


Manufacturers don't usually list the carb content. This omission makes it harder for consumers to know the percentage of carbs in the food. Why? Because high carb percentages can deter buyers. Most dry pet foods contain between 40% and 60% carbohydrates.


So, how can you calculate the carb content? It's straightforward.


Subtract the percentages of protein, fat, fiber, ash, and moisture from 100%. The remainder is the percentage of carbohydrates.


Quick Tip: If the label doesn’t specify ash or moisture content, use 8% as an average for both.


Here’s an example:


The carbohydrate content = 100 - 25 - 17 - 4.5 – 10 – 10 = 33.5% (This is a relatively low level of carbohydrates for kibble)

 

Here’s another example which is not as good:



The carbohydrate content = 100 - 20 - 12 - 3 – 10 – 8 = 47% (I’ve used 8% for ash since it’s not on the label).


The figures presented above reflect the 'as fed' carbohydrate content, which can be deceptive. The real value lies in the dry matter carbohydrate content, calculated by subtracting the moisture content from the food. Here's the breakdown:


Dry Matter Carbohydrate Content:


Percent Carbohydrate (Dry Matter)

= [Percent Carbohydrate (as fed) ÷ (100 – Moisture)] x 100

= [47.0% ÷ 90] x 100

= 52.2% Carbohydrate


Next time you're in the pet food aisle, arm yourself with this knowledge. Power up your pet's diet with confidence. Decode the label, and give your pet the nutrition they truly deserve.


Understanding 'Crude' in Pet Food Labels

In pet food labelling, 'crude' means 'total.' Thus, 'crude protein' refers to the total protein content in the food, and 'crude fat' refers to the total fat content, regardless of their sources.


Deceptive Marketing in Pet Food: What You Need to Know

When it comes to pet food, those enticing photos of fresh ingredients on the packaging can be incredibly misleading. Pet food manufacturers often prioritise marketing over transparency, creating an impression of health and quality that doesn't match the actual ingredient list.


Prominent images of cranberries, blueberries, apples, cuts of meat, and fresh vegetables can dominate the packaging, suggesting a nutrient-rich product. However, the reality is often quite different. The combined quantity of these ingredients may barely equal the size of a single blueberry.


Consider this: a manufacturer can drop a solitary blueberry into a 15kg bag of pet food and legally list "blueberries" as an ingredient. To add insult to injury, they can then splash images of blueberries all over the bag, creating an illusion that your dog's diet will be brimming with healthy, delicious fruit. Sadly, they aren't breaking any regulations by doing this.


This misleading tactic is a long-standing practice exploited by manufacturers and their marketing teams. It's crucial to understand that your dog requires specific vegetables, organ meats, herbs, nutraceuticals, and other nutrients for a balanced diet. Therefore, scrutinising the ingredient list is essential.


The Salt Divider: Understanding Dog Food Labels

According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), dry dog food should contain a minimum of 0.3% sodium to ensure proper maintenance and support normal growth and development. This is the baseline recommendation for your dog's health.


Salt, while essential in small amounts, plays a critical role in your dog's diet. Manufacturers often add it to pet food to enhance flavour and act as a natural preservative by absorbing excess moisture, preventing harmful mould and bacteria growth.


The "salt divider" on pet food labels is a handy tool for discerning ingredient quantities. Anything listed after salt constitutes less than 1% of the food, indicating minimal presence. Understanding this can help you better evaluate a product's nutritional value.

Consider the above example of a low-quality pet food with misleading marketing. The top two ingredients are "meal," not real meat, and salt is the ninth ingredient. This placement means that cranberries, blueberries, and kelp are present in such small amounts that they offer negligible nutritional benefits despite the packaging claims. The label boasts about being "rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients," promoting ingredients like cranberries, blueberries, and kelp for their antioxidant properties. While these ingredients are indeed beneficial, they must be present in significant amounts to make a difference.


Additionally, this product compensates for its lack of real nutrients with a plethora of synthetic vitamins and minerals to appear "complete and balanced." This reliance further underscores its poor quality.


Here’s another eye-opening ingredient list:


Organic chicken, potato, arctic char, chicken fat naturally preserved with mixed tocopherols, sweet potatoes, dried egg product, peas, natural chicken flavour, dried tomato pomace, whole flaxseed, lecithin, potassium chloride, salt, choline chloride, yeast extract, calcium carbonate, dried chicory root (a source of inulin), ferrous sulfate, taurine, zinc oxide, organic duck, alpha tocopherol acetate (a source of vitamin E), apples, organic cranberries, yucca schidigera extract, crab and shrimp meal, New Zealand green mussels, sea cucumber, organic dried blueberries, organic dried pineapple, honey, organic dried rosemary, organic dried parsley, organic dried spearmint, organic carob, organic dried seaweed meal, organic dehydrated alfalfa meal, organic asparagus, organic green tea extract, organic dried spinach, organic dried broccoli, organic dried carrot, organic dried cauliflower, zinc …


Ten ingredients past salt, buried beneath a heap of vitamins and minerals, you'll find organic cranberries. Imagine this: a 15kg bag of food flaunting a colossal cranberry image, leading you to believe it’s packed with this superfruit. But glance at the ingredient panel, and reality hits. Cranberries are listed 10 ingredients after salt. That translates to barely a trace – less than a sprinkle in almost 120 cups, a mere pinch in a 40-day supply of food!


And it doesn’t stop there. All those other "healthy" ingredients also trail behind salt – organic duck, apples, New Zealand green mussels, sea cucumber, blueberries, and a variety of nutritious vegetables!  This is the sad reality we need to navigate when buying food for our dogs.


Who’s Watching Your Pet’s Food?

Brace yourself: pet food companies aren’t required to test their products before they hit the shelves. Shocking, right? It gets worse.


Independent studies have consistently revealed a disturbing trend: most commercial dog food labels are flat-out wrong. A comprehensive review of commercial dog food delivered a damning verdict—up to 80% of dry, canned, limited-antigen, raw, and plant-based diets could be hiding unlisted species. Those are some terrifying odds, but the grim reality is likely even bleaker. Whole-genome sequencing studies suggest that contamination isn’t just common; it’s practically universal.



Think you’re safe with novel-ingredient or single-protein diets? Think again. Research indicates these too often contain undisclosed proteins. Today’s safe bag could be tomorrow’s allergenic nightmare. And for dogs with allergies, this inconsistency can be a ticking time bomb.


When labels lie, you and your dog pay the price. This is especially alarming for pets with specific dietary needs, like protein allergies. The stakes are high, and the risks are real.


Master Your Dog’s Diet: Read the Labels

In the world of dog food, knowledge is power. Don’t let attractive packaging or popular ingredients sway your choices. If you want to treat your dog to fruit, opt for fresh, organic, and locally sourced options, and add them to your pet’s bowl yourself.


Consider transitioning your dog to a whole food, raw meat diet. This way, you control every ingredient and protein source, leading to a healthier, more active, and vibrant dog.


Remember, no manufacturer will care for your dog’s nutrition as thoroughly as you can. So, when choosing commercial dog food, always investigate what’s really inside. Your diligence will ensure your furry friend thrives.

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